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How a spy plane became NASA’s climate watcher

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This article was originally task and purpose.

Dobbins Air Force Reserve Base, located just north of Atlanta, Georgia, is usually the home of the United States. C-130 transport aircraftBut in the coming weeks, the base will have a quirky guest. It’s a white-painted jet plane that can fly over half a day at the edge of space.

The “Earth Resources 2” jet is used by NASA for hurricane research, satellite system testing, and various other scientific purposes.Observers of military aviation may be more familiar with its cousin, the all-black Air Force U-2 reconnaissance aircraft has been collecting intelligence photographs for the U.S. government since the 1950s.

After all, the so-called “Dragon Lady” is not only good at gathering information about enemy forces, but also at researching the forces of nature.

“NASA ER-2 has played an important role in earth science research because of its ability to dive into the lower stratosphere at subsonic speeds, enabling direct sampling of the stratosphere and virtual satellite simulation missions,” said NASA. says. To tell of a jet.

It makes sense that a spy plane would work well as a scientific machine. After all, one of the reasons why the U-2 is still in service with the Air Force 67 years after its first flight is his adaptability. Aircraft are essentially giant gliders that can carry a large payload of sensors, cameras, and other tools to gather information.

“It’s just a glider with a big motor in its butt,” said former U-2 pilot and retired Colonel Michael “Rips” Phillips. fighter pilot podcast October 2020. And the bad guys don’t know when it will come. ”

Unlike satellites that move in predictable orbits around the Earth, U-2 can fly at very high altitudes whenever needed. U-2s often fly at over 70,000 feet (13 miles), while commercial aircraft typically fly at about 31,000 and 38,000 feet (6 to 7 miles). according to time. From that height you can see the curve of the Earth, the movement of the night sky across the globe, and the shape of a small airliner below you, one U-2 pilot identified only as Major Chris. rice field. 2020.

The ER-2, on the other hand, typically flies between 20,000 and 70,000 feet, writes NASA. At that altitude, ER-2 can test sensors that scientists hope to use on satellites. This means scientists can find and address system bugs without the cost of launching faulty satellites into space.

According to NASA, ER-2 will be deployed on six continents to study everything from global warming to ozone depletion. This effort will benefit not only space agencies, but also the U.S. Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The agency operated straight-up U-2s from 1971 to 1981 with its first ER-2 and then its second ER-2 in 1989. NASA Test Flight to Support Scientific Research I have written.

The ER-2 flies at altitudes where the pressure is so low that an unsuspecting pilot’s blood literally boils. To prevent that, ER-2 pilots wear pressure suits much like those worn by NASA astronauts to orbit and return. Said WIRED magazine in 2017.

Broce, who landed the F-14 fighters on the carrier, navy pilotsaid that flying the ER-2 is a difficult task.

“It’s hard to do everything about planes,” he told WIRED. “I call it the Circus. Everything about the plane is unique.”

[Related: The spy agency origins of NASA’s next powerful planet-hunting observatory.]

One of the ER-2’s oddities is a pair of wheels that keep the plane’s massive wings off the runway. When the plane takes off, the wheels are designed to fall off and not be used again until the next flight.

As Broce experienced, once in the air, the flight itself can last eight, ten, or even thirteen hours. To maintain energy, pilots bring in an edible substance similar to baby food and eat it through a tube connected to the suit’s helmet.

Suits may sound uncomfortable, but they have quite the office view.

“The scenery is beautiful, no weather, and you can see the curvature of the earth,” says Broce.

The hardest part of flying the U-2 and ER-2 comes at the end of a long flight. The pilot must bring the lumbering aircraft to a halt using only his two wheels, arranged like a bicycle on the fuselage. Proposed to a former aircraft carrier pilot.

“At some point in the landing, all planes in the world are ready to give up and relax. Said 2015 Flying Magazine. You have to fly the plane until it stops on the runway. It doesn’t handle crosswinds well and is attached to the bike gear. ”

To assist with the landing, a fellow U-2 or ER-2 pilot in a pursuit vehicle tracks the jet along the runway and stops the landing pilot. Over the next few weeks, Dobbins’ astronauts will be able to enjoy the sights as the ER-2 returns from a severe weather tracking mission. ER-2 will be stationed there until about March 5, the base. Said in a press release.

whether climate change ozone layernuclear-armed Soviet forces, or anything else that could end all life on Earth, U-2 and ER-2 are always around and seem to be watching the U.S. government. , will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

“We only have a handful of planes, but we have about 30 left. We fly every day,” former U-2 pilot Phillips said in 2020. , and the U-2 is flying all the time. ”

special thanks flyby The newsletter where I first learned of this story.

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